Madiba remembered on Robben Island

Prison warder Christo Brand says Madiba was always friendly, polite and helpful.

Robben Island prison warder Christo Brand says Madiba was always friendly, polite and helpful. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN.

ROBBEN ISLAND - Apartheid-era South Africa's most feared prison, Robben Island, remains inextricably linked with Nelson Mandela, its most famous inmate who spent decades of hard labour educating his comrades and charming even his granite-hearted jailers.

Now a museum and popular tourist attraction, the windswept lump of rock in shark-infested waters off Cape Town kept black agitators in isolation for three decades until President FW de Klerk began dismantling white-minority rule in 1990.

Nelson Mandela. Picture: AFP

Mandela, who died on 5 December aged 95, was first sent to Robben Island for a brief period in 1962 for minor political offences, then returned two years later for a life sentence after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.

Emotional tributes at Madiba's Houghton home. Picture: Mia Lindeque/EWN.

Aged 46 when he began his term, Mandela was sentenced with other leading members of the ANC to years of hard labour, breaking rocks in a limestone quarry.

Chained in rows of four, prisoners worked eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week. The harsh glare of the sun on the white rocks, combined with the dust, caused permanent damage to Mandela's eyes.

Despite the hardship, Mandela did not direct his frustrations at his immediate captors.

A prison warder who was with Mandela from 1978 until his release in 1990, Christo Brand, said, "He was always friendly, polite and helpful,"

"He became like a father to me. If I needed some help and assistance with something, he was always there for me," said Brand, who now helps at the Robben Island museum.

In his autobiography _Long Walk to Freedom, _much of which was written covertly in his cell on the island, Mandela recalls the loneliness and isolation felt by inmates.

"Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system," he wrote.


Conditions during his 18 years on the island fluctuated, echoing the broader political climate on the mainland, as well as the whim of officials overseeing the jail. A particularly harsh regime was implemented after Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated in September 1966.

But Mandela used his training as a lawyer to hamper many of the attempts by warders to harass prisoners, and insisted on their right to study for university degrees. He also made a point of trying to talk to prison guards, most of them Afrikaans-speaking whites.

Besides his iron will and principled stance, Mandela's easy charm and generosity helped to chip away at the prison's strict rules and disciplinarian barriers.

Occasionally, prisoners were allowed to cook themselves stews of clams, mussels, crayfish and abalone during lunch breaks while they harvested seaweed for export to Japan.

They were also able to carry out ritual circumcisions, an important part of tribal custom marking initiation into manhood.

"The inmates seemed to be running the prison, not the authorities," Mandela said.

The island's first political prisoner, a local chief named Autshumato, was imprisoned in 1658 but escaped a year later with fellow prisoners in a stolen boat, one of the handful of successful escapes that historians record.

Currently about 200 people, including former political prisoners and museum staff, live on the island, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.

To help complete its transformation from a forbidding place of exile, the island now hosts weddings on Valentine's Day, attracting couples from around the world who want to exchange vows in the main village's historic Garrison Church.